Two wonderful authors who've posted in the past for me, Sara J. Henry and Alex George, have books releasing this week. Sara, who is a LONGtime friend - we were in a writing group together in Nashville, working on our first novels! - has a second novel, A Cold Lonely Place just out yesterday. Her first, Learning to Swim, won the 2012 Anthony Award for best first novel, the 2012 Agatha Award for best first novel, and the 2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award! And I connected with Alex online through Eleanor Brown, one of my favorite writer-pals. His A Good American - now out in paperback - was a “Top 2012 Summer Read” for NPR’s Morning Edition, a #1 Pick for Indie Next pick, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Two great reads to enjoy, and two great stories of how they got started. - Meg
At a book conference last fall, another writer challenged me to arm wrestle. I have to explain that odd things happen when you get authors together. I also have to explain that I have very little upper-body strength and should have lost this contest in a few seconds. But I arm-wrestled that much stronger writer within a few inches of victory before we called it a stand-off. Afterward he looked at me in amazement and said, “You shouldn’t have been able to do that – but you were so determined.”
And I said, “Yes, that’s how I finished my novel.”
Sheer, dumb determination – and not stopping when common sense would have said to.
I started this novel years ago while in a writers’ group with Meg and her husband, Mac, when we all lived in Nashville. Then I began meeting weekly with Mac, exchanging chapters of our novels-in-progress. Because I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, I kept churning out chapters.
So then I had a novel. Parts of it were very good. Parts weren’t. Meg and Mac each gave me comments that I still have – very astute comments, dead on. The problem was I had no idea how to rewrite. I couldn’t imagine the characters doing anything they weren’t already doing, and when I made a stab at changing things, it didn’t work. A friend showed it to several publishers, who basically said Promising, but the middle falls down.
Years passed, as they do. The Claytons moved; I moved. Meg had me send my manuscript to her then-agent, who basically said Promising, but the middle falls down. I took another stab at fixing it, to no avail. Then Meg suggested I apply to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I went, and I didn’t write for a year afterward (that’s another story). But doggedly, perhaps stupidly, I went back the following year.
And that’s when everything changed. An agent pulled me aside and said This is very good, how far along is it? and I said, Oh, it’s done, but the middle needs reworking.
In a fairy tale I would have gone home and rewritten immediately, but life intervened. Then shortly before leaving for a five-week houseswap in Australia, I snapped a bone in my right foot and had surgery the next day. So off I went, on crutches and in a boot-cast, and there, in a town just outside Sydney where I knew no one, in cold and rainy weather with a painful healing foot, I made myself learn to rewrite. I cut chunks and moved things, reimagined characters, and reworked the plot. Slowly, it began to take shape. And during that process I realized This is what I do, and that I had to fix this book even if it never got published. And that was when I truly became a writer.
Back home, life got in the way again, but then I made myself take time off to work on the book. While I watched my savings dwindle, I revised and polished and revised again. My friend Jamie Ford urged me to send the manuscript to agents, but I knew it wasn’t ready. Then, with money and time running out, I sent it off—still not quite ready, but close.
And, as it turned out, close enough.
This time, the fairy tale came true. Requests flowed in, agents made offers, the book sold and I had a two-book deal. This week I finished writing the second book, a sequel, and this week Learning to Swim, my first novel, was released.
And my friends Meg and Mac are largely to blame for all this – for having reached out to me at just the right time. – Sara
My name is Alex George, and I am a debut novelist. All over again.
Let me explain.
I’ve published four books before, but only in Europe – never in America. I stopped writing completely after my fourth novel was published while I studied for the Missouri bar exam (I had been a lawyer in England for eight years, and had to re-qualify when I moved to the States.) It wasn’t the most relaxing sabbatical, but the break gave me the time and distance I needed to assess my writing career, which had not been going well. Sales were disappointing, and writing had stopped being fun. I was in a rut that I seemed unable to escape from. My publisher kept asking for the same kind of novel, time after time; every attempt to develop or expand the scope of my books was met with polite but firm editorial disapproval, and vague references to “readers’ expectations”. I had left my job as a corporate lawyer to write full-time some years earlier, and the additional pressures caused by that decision had squeezed any last pleasure remaining out of the act of telling stories.
With my fourth novel completed, though, I was out of contract. And (the bar exam having been successfully negotiated) I had also resumed my legal career – which meant, glory of glories, that writing had become a hobby again. Better still, I was free to write whatever book I liked.
I took a deep breath, and resolved to try and write the sort of book I had dreamed of writing for years. I wanted to tell an ambitious, big, complex tale – the kind of story that a reader could disappear into. And so I put my first four books out of my head and set off on this new journey, writing as if this book were my first. I got up at five o’clock every morning and wrote for two hours while my family slept. It was a slow process – painfully slow, sometimes – but I rarely missed a day. Even if I only wrote a handful of sentences, every morning my collection of words grew a little more. There were the usual moments of crippling self-doubt, of course, but on I stumbled, a few paragraphs at a time, and the story gradually took shape. Characters materialized; ideas coalesced. I took my sweet time, and I had a ball. After five years or so, I had produced a novel – or something approximating one. It was so different from anything else I had written that it really did feel like a debut. If nothing else, it represented a fresh start. After a few epic rewrites I sold worldwide rights to A Good American to Amy Einhorn Books in 2010, and the book was published a couple of weeks ago. It’s my first book to appear in the United States, and so I have been christened a debut author once more.
If there is a moral to this story, I suppose it is this: write the book you want you to write. The chances are that it will be far better than any other book you’ll produce. A Good American was the book I always longed to write but never could, and perhaps because of that it feels like my first novel. In fact, it feels like a whole new career. I feel very lucky to have been given a second chance. – Alex
These posts originally ran on 1st Books: Reading, Writing, and Travel, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, and other novels (all available from Random House/Ballantine). 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.